What was going on in the Summer of 1969? Woodstock, mankind’s first walk on the moon, the Manson murders and the Stonewall riots. Also, there was an important event blending music, comedy and togetherness at Mt. Morris Park in Harlem. “Summer of Soul (…Or When the Revolution Could Not be Televised)” is a documentary capturing the Harlem Cultural Festival, a free six-week event attracting 300,000 attendees. The film premieres July 2 streaming on Hulu and showing in theaters.
Audiences saw performances by Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder, The Chambers Brothers, Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln, Sly and the Family Stone, The Edwin Hawkins Singers, Mahalia Jackson, The Staple Singers, Moms Mabley and so many others. Nearly 70 acts performed at that one-of-a-kind festival.
Forty hours of film from this festival sat in a basement for 50 years. The footage was found producing partners of Amir-Khalib “Questlove” Thompson. Thompson is probably best known as co-founder of hip hop group The Roots, the house band for “The Tonight Show.” It took a while for Thompson to believe the footage existed.
“What they showed absolutely blew me away,” said Thompson when his producers came to him in 2017 with some of the footage. “That’s when I realized this was serious.”
THE WORK BEGINS
From viewing 40 hours of raw footage, Thompson knew he had to be a part of the project. He was ready to come on board as a producer, but his producing partners wanted him to direct the film. In addition to The Roots, Thompson has authored books, produced projects for Broadway and is a respected musicologist. Film directing would be a new talent to add to his list of accomplishments.
In 1969, the country was recovering from assassinations of leaders important to the Black community. Violence ran rampant in our cities. There were more than 100 riots across the country during the 1960s. A marked change in Black American culture began in1969. The festival was at the right time and place to acknowledge that change.
“I always related summertime to the potential of violence,” said Darryl Lewis, an attendee at the Harlem Cultural Festival who was interviewed by Thompson. “I was 19 when the festival took place. I was home from college. The goal of the festival may have been to keep Black folks from burning up the city in ′69.”
THE IMPORTANCE OF SEEING US
Along with multiple genres of Black music, “Summer of Soul” looked like a fashion time capsule. Performers wore everything from suits, tuxedos, leisure suits, colorful psychedelic patterns, dashikis and Afrocentric dresses.
“The most telling moment of the movie was the arrival of Sly and the Family Stone,” said Thompson about confused expressions from some audience members. “People in their 30s had never seen a band perform on stage just wearing their regular clothes. That was controversial.”
“I remember being with my family walking around the park. As far as I could see, it was Black people. It was like seeing royalty,” said Musa Jackson, another attendee who was 5 years old when he experienced the festival.
AN IMPORTANT MOMENT FOR PERFORMERS
Thompson also interviewed some of the entertainers. The most poignant comments came from Billy Davis Jr. and Marilyn McCoo who became very emotional while watching their performance as members of The 5th Dimension. They married in July 1969.
“We were so excited about performing in Harlem. We were constantly being attacked because we weren’t Black enough. We didn’t like that,” said McCoo. “That was one of the reasons performing in Harlem was so important to us. We wanted our people to know what we were about and we were hoping they would receive us.”
“When we first hit, we came right out of the box into the pop charts,” continued Davis. “Everybody thought we were a White act until they saw pictures of the group. Back then groups were segregated so we were caught in the middle.”
“Summer of Soul” is like Christmas in July. It is a multigenerational gift that will stimulate a lot of conversation.
“I went into this with just a labor of love for music, for telling stories and saving our history. Black erasure was such a prominent part of this almost not happening,” said Thompson. “I want people to walk away feeling tall and knowing that their story is important.”